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Livio Aims to Put 1000s of Smartphone Apps into Every Car

New system would simplify process of adding new apps to systems like Ford Sync or NissanConnect.

by on Apr.18, 2012

Motorists are demanding access to smartphone apps like Pandora as they drive.

Long gone are days when drivers had to settle for scratchy AM radio on their daily commutes. It’s hard to find a new model in showrooms, these days, not equipped with FM, a CD changer, perhaps a hard drive and, more and more frequently, a system like Ford’s popular Sync that links to various smartphone applications to let them play through the vehicle’s speakers.

In fact, manufacturers have been racing to line up “app” partners, notably the Pandora music system and Stitcher news service, seeing a competitive advantage in the number they can offer customers.  But that’s not always easy.  It can require a significant amount of engineering resources to get an app and a system like Sync, the Mercedes-Benz mbrace2, or the new NissanConnect to work with one another.

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But a small start-up from the Detroit suburb of Ferndale believes it may have the answer.  Called Livio, it wants to position itself as a sort of software middleman.  Technology it has developed could simplify the process of connecting app to car – permitting motorists to access literally thousands of smartphone services, from music to social networking.

“My focus is to get apps into cars,” says Jake Sigal, the founder and CEO of Livio, which operates out of a small, one-story building about 10 miles north of the Detroit riverfront.

His firm initially started out manufacturing standalone Internet radio receivers, devices that could access the 10s of thousands of audio “broadcasts” now commonplace online.  It still produces several models but has shifted its focus to what could be a far more lucrative venture.

The concept is simple: an automaker like Ford shouldn’t have to worry about validating individual apps, finding ways to get Sync to work with, say, InTune – which is an app that can access Internet radio stations.  Nor, he says, should a software developer have to worry about making their apps conform to the specifications of dozens of different auto manufacturers.

That, he says, is Livio’s job.  LivioConnect is intended to do the heavy lifting, working with a carmaker like Ford or Toyota or BMW to come up with a uniform interface that will work with each company’s infotainment system.  In turn, Livio sets a single standard that app developers have to comply with.

Once they do, they could instantly gain access to the vehicles of any manufacturer Livio has a contract with.

“The manufacturers no longer have to so it one app at a time,” explains Sigal.

A carmaker could still place limits on what apps it would or wouldn’t allow to operate in the vehicle, he says, stressing “We won’t handle all apps.  You won’t be able to play Angry Birds while driving.”

A key consideration is safety – especially with federal safety regulators now considering rules that would enact strict limits on in-car technologies that could pose the threat of distracted driving.  Even onboard navigation systems might be limited by rules under study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But Sigal contends that by having a single, uniform software package to work with, it would be easier for an automaker to ensure that any app can be operated in a uniform method – whether using voice controls or by tapping buttons on the steering wheel.

“The vehicle would be responsible for safety, not the app,” he insists.

Livio has been quietly trying to win over skeptics on the automotive side who fret about giving up control of their new infotainment technology.  But industry officials appear to be intrigued.

“Consumers want to have access to their smartphone apps,” said Sara LeBlanc, GM’s global infotainment program manager, during a recent demonstration of the new Chevrolet MyLink. That infotainment system is debuting with Pandora but engineers are still working on other apps, something LeBlanc acknowledged is a slow and cumbersome process she’d like to see sped up.

While LeBlanc declined to discuss Livio, several insiders at the MyLink demonstration acknowledged that the maker is working with Livio and could become one of the first to opt in on the service.  But they declined to go into detail about timing.

Beyond working directly with automakers, Livio has been lining up alliances with suppliers who provide the Bluetooth wireless links between a car’s infotainment system and a smartphone.  Having that technology in place with the basic LivioConnect code could encourage a company like General Motors to sign on, says Sigal.

Those hardware partners include some of the biggest in the business, including DICE Electronics, Hydra and CSR, confirms a Livio spokeswoman.

The business model could see Livio raking in cash – a penny or two at a time – from both sides of the smartphone.

A company like GM would pay an up-front fee to work with the Michigan firm, and “We would charge a one-time licensing fee for each (smartphone app) partner,” explains Sigal, “a fair price for a fair service.”

And, he’s betting, a highly desirable one.  Considering the strong demand for driving even more apps into the car, Livio could be ready to be one of the big beneficiaries of the smartphone revolution.

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